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Last Updated: Sunday, 28 August 2005, 00:12 GMT 01:12 UK
'It really is quite safe'
By Susannah Cullinane
BBC News

This week the BBC News website is looking at people who do unusual jobs. In the last of the series we speak to an oil rig engineer who works off the north-east coast of Scotland.

Andrew Johnson abseiling down oil platform
The highest point of the oil rig is approximately 70m above sea
It looks like a health and safety nightmare - but Andrew Johnson insists his job is really quite safe.

The 30-year-old has worked on oil rigs in the North Sea for about five years, abseiling down the side of rigs for kicks - and 200 a day.

He began work as a "roughneck" on a drilling crew and now works as a "rope access technician", continually checking the vast steel structure of the rig is safe.

"If metal is supporting a heavy load, or transporting gas or liquid, after a while it will wear and tear and it's very important that it's repaired if it's reached a level that's too thin," he explains.

The highest point of a rig is its flame tower, which is about 70 metres above the sea, and for most of the day Andrew's "office" is a safety harness.

Rope access technicians use ultrasonic sets to check the metal - the small boxes send out sound waves to measure thickness.

It's a 12-hour day but Mr Johnson says his team can sometimes do two or three hours of overtime after dinner, as the rigs are lit up around the clock.

Monitored

While dangling off the side of an oil rig doesn't at first glance appear to be the safest of career options, Andrew denies it is unduly risky:

"My job has an excellent safety record, despite appearing dangerous," he says.

"The main control room knows every job that's going on at any one time. It's a real paperwork system but it's very well implemented."

Andrew Johnson suspended above the sea
The best part is the adrenalin rush of being suspended at a huge height
Andrew Johnson

But he adds: "Because there's a certain amount of danger about this particular job training for it has to be monitored."

He doesn't escape doing his own paperwork, of course: the team of four write assessment reports detailing whether welders and structural engineers need to be brought in to carry out repairs.

The New Zealander was originally attracted to the industry because it offers an offshore work visa - and his UK working holiday visa was due to run out.

To work as a rope access technician he also had to do a week-long course governed by the Industrial Rope Access Trade Association (Irata).

He tends to work a two-week on, two-week off rota with regulations meaning that no one can stay on a platform for longer than three weeks.

Seasonal work

And it's not year-round work either.

"We're not really permitted to work in wind speeds of 25 knots or more and in winter the speed picks up considerably on the North Sea, so it's not really a productive job then," he says.

North Alwyn Platform
The North Alwyn platform is a two-hour helicopter flight from Aberdeen

Reassuringly, there's also a medic on every platform.

"They're on call 24 hours and they have a very small hospital. If there's a serious accident they send a helicopter - MedEvac - and get the injured straight back to shore."

But it's not quite a hop-skip and a jump should an emergency arise. At the time of writing Andrew is based on the North Alwyn Platform, owned by the French oil company, Total.

It is two-hours off-shore by helicopter.

If, at this point, you're visualising a bunch of boozy oilers sitting around in gale force winds comparing tales of the sea over glasses of whisky, think again.

Breath tests

Being away from civilisation is one of the worst things about his job, Andrew says, and the other is being away from pubs and alcohol.

"There's strictly no alcohol allowed off shore. Everyone gets their bags searched when they check in at the heliport.

"Even turning up looking hung over could get you breath tested and they could stop you getting on the helicopter. You could end up losing your job if that happened."

Andrew Johnson and colleague with sonic set
Rope access technicians use an ultra sonic set to check metal

But there are other options to keep workers on the rig occupied between 12-hour shifts, he says.

They have access to a DVD library, a gym, a mini cinema, snooker, table football and there can be bingo and quiz nights.

"There are also two designated smoking areas because you can't smoke outside," he says.

No drinking, no smoking, stranded in the middle of the sea - sounds like a recipe for a violent action thriller...

But he says tempers rarely flare. "It's very rare there's a clash of personalities, because everyone's aware that they're living in close quarters and you have to be considerate.

"If anyone got caught fighting people know that they'd lose their job so that's not really tolerated at all, any violence."

So what's the - excuse the pun - high point?

"The best part of my job is the helicopter ride home..." he laughs.

"No, the best part is the adrenalin rush of being suspended at a huge height."




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